Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Telescope cherry

Of no interest to anyone else I am sure, but yesterday I looked up at space through a telescope for the first time.

My astronomy GCSE course has attempted this before, and again last night we trooped up to the famous 28" inch refracting telescope (the one used by Karen Gillan in Doctor Who Confidential earlier this year) only to find the view again obscured by clouds. The proper astronomer and our teacher filled time, explaining the history and mechanisms and testing our new-learnt knowledge. We waited and waited, and used a clever gadget called a 'window' to check if the sky might be clearing, but eventually decided to troop back into the warm.

Once we'd watched the telescope get put to bed and trooped down the steps and outside the Moon couldn't have been clearer - the tease. So the intrepid Nick who organises our group quickly found us an 8" inch reflector built by Meade: a bucket-shaped thing about the length of my forearm.

As the experts put this contraption together, Nimbos and grabbed a cup of tea and were then out in the cold again to queue up for a look.

The waxing gibbous moon looked shiny bright to the naked eye and, as thin cloud occasionally brushed over it, produced a glowing halo. This is due to icy crystals in the wintry cold atmosphere, which refract moonlight. The centre of the halo is bluish, the edge of it red - for the same reason as the different colours of the rainbow.

Looking through the telescope was something else entirely. At first I could see nothing but a white blur - as we'd been queuing the Earth's rotation had moved the telescope a bit. The helpful astronomer adjusted the setting and then - oh blimey - I saw.

A curved, gleaming surface of white, splotched with little craters, so bright it looked like plaster of Paris that had not quite set, the splotches made just a moment before I looked. The edges of these feature cast long, distinct shadows, picking out the details. The surface rippled slightly, as if I was looking through clear water - an effect of Earth's atmosphere refracting the light, something astronomers call 'seeing'. But another world, and in plain sight, tantalising, just out of reach.

Once we'd all wowed at this incredible view, the astronomers moved the telescope and trained it on Jupiter. With the naked eye, the huge planet looked like a bright star, hanging at about five o'clock below the Moon. Before we'd ventured out into the cold, we'd look at it using the free - and cool - Stellarium software which gave us an idea of what to expect: Jupiter in a line with its four largest moons.

But to actually see it! I took a moment to realise what I was looking at - the telescope flipping the image upside down, a reflection of the Stellarium cheat. A murky, stripey ball hanging in the darkness at the centre of the eyepiece. To the left (in reality, to the right) three bright stars - just the same size as Jupiter appeared to the naked eye. On the right, another star.

These moons, first seen by Galileo 400 years ago, transformed our understanding of our place in the universe. For more than 2,000 years the assumption had been that the Earth was at the centre of everything, that the celestial bodies looped slowly around us. Galileo tracked the positions of his four Galilean moons and showed why they moved and sometimes vanished. Now here was evidence of Moons circling something else: proof that we're not at the centre of things, the first sign that we live and toil on an insignificant sticky rock circling an insignificant star.

That is, except for something that's not insignificant: we look up.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Meat feast

Had lunch at the Westfield Byron Burger today with m'learned colleagues and chose the double Byron because I is a pig. Finished before anyone else too. Oink oink.

Double Byron burger

Friday, November 05, 2010

Where's Simon?

Graceless, the three CD sci-fi mini-series what I wrote, is out this month. The Big Finish website boasts full details and a trailer, and the new issue of free online Vortex magazine interviews stars Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington.

Ciara will also be at the Dimensions convention next week, along with director Lisa Bowerman and the Big Finish gang. Me, Ciara, Lisa, Laura and a whole cohort of slebs will also be at ChicagoTARDIS at the end of the month. Hooray!

That sadly means I miss Nev Fountain and Nicola Bryant signing copies of the Mervyn Stone Mysteries at Forbidden Planet on 25 November. The books are now out and already garnering nice comments on the internet. I've been helping with the publicity.

Also out now is Cinema Futura, edited by Mark Morris and containing the wise words of many wise people, including my chums Guy Adams, Paul Cornell, Joseph Lidster, James Moran and Rob Shearman. Oh, and there's me going on about the Peter Cushing Doctor Who films.

Plus I've got a story in the new Bernice Summerfield anthology, Present Danger, edited by Eddie Robson. It's the first thing I've written for dear old Benny in three years - back when I was her boss and king.

I'm afraid there's a load more of stuff by me due out over the next few months. Prison in Space, my adaptation of an unmade 1968 Doctor Who story, is out in December (there's a trailer on the site, too). In January, there's The Perpetual Bond starring Peter Purves and Tom Allen, and a whole bunch of Doctor Who DVD documentaries with my name on the credits. Sorry.

I am, meanwhile, manically busy with a whole bunch of stuff. I'm very nearly done on one extremely thrilling project which I've been slaving on for over a year. Announcements and things in due course. Am also having a lovely time at Doctor Who Adventures, am writing comics and short stories for somebody else and am just about keeping up with my space homework. But phew, knackered. Back to work...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Books finished, October 2010

Books finished in October 2010
High Rise by JG Ballard is told from the point of view of three men living at different levels of a block going to war with itself.

It's set in a grim future familiar from early 70s films – people living surrounded by concrete and fab gadgets, but where women still know their place and wait for husbands to come back from the office. Like the grim futures of Escape From The Planet of the Apes or A Clockwork Orange, violence seethes barely out of sight of their thick make-up and dinner parties, and suddenly the most respectable figures – think Margot and Jerry Leadbetter – are peeing in the swimming pool, murdering dogs, and caught up in cannibalism and incest.

It's a depressingly cruel and stupid story, playing out scenes of ever more brutal, primal violence in a dispassionate tone. There's little to differentiate our three protagonists apart from the levels at which they live in the building. There's little wit, irony or insight, and a lot of mention of exposed breasts and heavy loins. And yet its easy to get caught up in the collapse, the infantile misanthropy really striking a chord as I read it squodged in among other commuting livestock.

The book also includes various snippets of review, including the following gem:
“Ballard is neither believable or unbelievable ... his characterization is merely a matter of “roles” and his situations merely a matter of “context”: he is abstract, at once totally humourless and entirely unserious...”
That sounds rather damning until the next sentence:
“The point of his visions is to provide him with imagery, with opportunities to write well, and this seems to me to be the only intelligible way of getting the hang of his fiction.”'
Martin Amis, New Statesman, quoted in JG Ballard, High Rise, p. 1.
Unbelievable, humourless, abstract... and this is him writing well.

I read Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters' How Parliament Works (6th edition) in preparation for a job interview. It's a comprehensive, insiders' account and nicely up-to-date (to 2006), with some good thoughts on the future of the Houses and their procedures which stood me in good stead. I got the job, so woot.
“Long experience has taught me this about the status of mankind with regard to matters requiring thought: the less people know and understand about them, the more positively they attempt to argue concerning them; while on the other hand, to know and understand a multitude of things renders men cautious in passing judgement upon any of them.”
Galileo's Dream is a decidedly odd book. About half of it is a historical novel about Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), from his first hearing about the invention of telescopes and endeavouring to build one himself, through to his death under house arrest for daring to suggest, via the evidence of his observations, that the Earth orbits round the Sun.

Robinson is, as ever, expert at explaining the science bits and making them a vivid, thrilling part of the story. He's good at the petty jealousies and court politics that surround Galileo, his struggles with his family and commitments, his need to get funding for his work. It never quite needs be spelled out how little the practicalities of research have changed since Galileo's time.

A lot of this is especially enthralling as I'm studying GCSE Astronomy, and was making my own steady progress through the mathematics of lenses and focal lengths at roughly the same rate as the book. There's some interesting stuff about Galileo, the first man ever to gaze at the magnified moon, drawing prominent features bigger than they really are so that future observers would look out for them (p. 38). Observation, he realises in the book, is itself a level of magnification.

Robinson has a knack for getting into the heads of especially clever people. Galileo himself is a richly drawn character, brilliant and bombastic and impetuous. He makes a lot of enemies early on by winning debates rather rudely and not sparing egos. He's blind to how his actions affect others, estranged from family and former lovers. This all set up his enemies' revenge when they accuse of him of being a heretic.
“Galileo kept defending himself, in print and in person ... Whenever he was healthy he begged Cosimo, through his secretary Curzio Pecchena, to be allowed to go to Rome so that he could defend himself. He was still confident that he could demonstrate the truth of the Copernican hypothesis to anyone he spoke to in person. Picchena was not the only one who doubted this. Winning all those banquet debates had apparently caused Galileo to think that argument was how things were settled in the world. Unfortunately this is never how it happens.”
Ibid., p. 153.
Robinson is again good at teasing out the characters and global politics involved, as the new and liberal Pope finds himself undermined by the Medicis and needing to look strong. A war between two Catholic nations is deftly shown to play it's part in bringing Galileo to trial, while we hear of secret documents and meetings long before they play their part in the story.

The trial itself is, I think, a major stain on the history of the Catholic Church, but Robinson shows admirable restraint in depicting the many pressures on those involved. I expected the final judgement to make me angry; it just left me sad. The last part of the book, as Galileo struggles against infirmity and the deaths of loved ones, make this an effective tragedy. As a historical novel, it's quite a treat: clever, compelling and moving while at the same time an education.

And yet, that's only half the book. For the other half, Galileo travels epileptically (p.235) to the distant future, where humans are busy bothering alien life on Jupiter's moons – the very moons Galileo was first to see. This allows some rather po-faced future people to comment on and contextualise Galileo and his times, muttering about his treatment of women and his role as the inventor – and first martyr - of scientific method.

It's a little like the trick of Life on Mars, where adding a present-day policeman to a 1970s precinct lets you do all that fun cop stuff like out of The Sweeney while tutting at its prejudice and clich├ęs. But I sighed inwardly every time we jumped to the future for another interminable debate about whether we ought to make contact, or if it would have been better for society had Galileo been burnt at the stake.

There's lots on the development of science after Galileo's – and our own – time. He is brought to the future by something called entanglement which is couched in scientific terms. But this made-up science and the made-up future politics do nothing but disservice to the real man and his accomplishments. The book suggests Galileo – and also Archimedes – achieved great things because of what time travellers had told him. It's an insult to the man and his work, otherwise brought so vividly to life.

We discover that the story is being narrated by the Wandering Jew, himself a traveller from the far future, and telling the story as he awaits execution during the Reign of Terror. It's all in highly questionable taste, and is less profound or insightful as it is portentous. It reminded me too often of dreary sci-fi shows in which dreary characters plod dreary corridors earnestly discussing dreary plot. It's a not very good episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, or any episode of the new Battlestar Gallactica. And this is all the more galling because the other half of the book is so good.

I found John Osborne's Look Back in Anger gruelling when I read it at sixth-form half my life ago. Now it just seems painfully arch, two well-to-do young women falling for the same frustrated loser. It reminded me most of angry tirades from my fellow writers about the world failing to provide for their needs. It's not that I don't do that myself from time to time (sorry), but it's no fun to sit through and not exactly profound. The women - and the audience - would be better off walking out.